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Frrom:  Makani Themba-Nixon, Borders and Bridges: African Americans, Immigration and Racial Justice.


It's impossible to view black sentiment on immigration, or the possibilities for coalition building, as a monolith. Today, there are millions of immigrants in the US of African descent. One in ten foreign born US residents are from the Caribbean. One in twenty hail directly from the African continent. And for African Americans, whose forced migration began with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the history includes both conflict and collaboration on immigration issues.

Why would such "natural" allies have such difficulty coming together? And more importantly, what are the opportunities for building lasting alliances grounded in mutual interest and collective vision?

Black anti-immigrant activism dates as far back as the 19th century with the efforts of black trade unions to exclude Chinese laborers from jobs and trade organizations. More recent battles between established black leadership working (often unethically) to hold onto power, and leadership emerging from new immigrant communities seeking fair representation and access, have grown self-defeating at best -- violent at worst. And although blacks with anti-immigrant sentiment are among the minority, these tensions belie significant fear of real or perceived scarcity, job displacement, loss of political power and plain old bigotry. With white dominance and power sadly a given, it's a classic fight for the privilege of being "number two".

Nineteenth century arsons and murders in black communities by Irish immigrants and more recent clashes between African Americans and immigrants from Southeast Asia are examples from the equally long history of spurning and violence toward blacks by "non-black" immigrant groups. As the hard won gains of African Americans are fragile and hotly contested, there is animosity when immigrants arriving with relatively more capital, more acceptance and more privilege seem to "pass them by". This animosity is exacerbated when groups that avoid working with blacks leverage the language, imagery and tactics of the black civil rights movement to advance their struggles.

Scholars like UC Berkeley's Ian Haney-Lopez assert that one barrier to coalition building is that we black folk focus too much on race. If African Americans insist on building coalitions based on racial solidarity, says Haney-Lopez, they will miss out. In this analysis, racism only occurs between blacks and whites. Hence, the preference by some immigrant organizations for the term "xenophobia" to name and make distinctive the character of oppression that happens to them.

Xenophobia literally means fear of dark or darker people. Given the fact that race is a social construction (that is who we are racially is defined more so by socioeconomic and political convention than biology), assertions of xenophobia assume that the problems and solutions are located outside of an analysis of racism and white privilege, and that 'xenophobic oppression' is a result of one's status as a darker version of the same "race" or social designation as whites.

There are obvious problems with attempting to distinguish xenophobia from racism. The point is that the distinction connotes separation from the meaning and people associated with racism in order to cling to a slim thread of privilege. The politics underpinning this kind of separation are much like those of the "colored" category under apartheid South Africa. To paraphrase philosopher Iris Young, it is the battle over who will be exploited and who will be marginalized.

The confluence of these forces and the largely white-controlled, dehumanizing public context makes coalition building a challenge. Yet, there's hope. Groups are bucking traditional thinking and making a difference. Groups like CAUSA in Oregon and the Committee Against Anti Asian Violence (CAAAV) in New York have been working consciously to build principled alliances that include African Americans.

These initiatives employ a comprehensive framework for understanding common challenges and varied nuances of the intersections race, class, gender, sexual orientation, globalization and other forces. Third World Within, a New York based coalition that includes Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, New York City (an African American led group) and the Audre Lorde Project (a multiracial organization) and CAAAV are one example. Other multicultural organizing groups like Oakland California's PUEBLO and its "mother" organization the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) create space for deeper discussion and work that brings together African Americans, non-black immigrants, and others in lasting coalitions.

This work is part of a tradition of progressive, crosscutting organizing that builds bridges that groups can walk across together. They avoid "number two-ism" and challenge the assumptions that make it possible to have a "number one" -- assumptions around us and within us. They also have another important thing in common: a broad but focused agenda of mutual interest and dreaming.

In the final analysis, it will not be an immigrant movement or a black liberation movement that will forge the necessary bridges. It will be a broader movement that has in sharp focus how these and other issues of human dignity and justice relate and fortify one another.


Makani Themba-Nixon is author of Making Policy Making Change, available on Chardon Press